Oberammergau carries a passion for the greatest story ever told

By  Lorraine Williams, Catholic Register Special
  • December 4, 2009
{mosimage}It’s a testament to human tenacity and faith that the people of a tiny Bavarian village, keeping a promise made four centuries ago, will again hold performances of the Oberammergau Passion Play next year.

Following the deaths of 80 townspeople in 1633 from a plague that swept Europe during the Thirty Years War, the people of Oberammergau promised to perform a play depicting the suffering, death and resurrection of Our Lord Jesus Christ every 10 years if they could be spared further deaths. Miraculously, the epidemic ended and the following year the first presentation took place. Since then, with only a few exceptions when world events intervened, the people of Oberammergau have kept their pledge.

The play initially was performed on a stage in the cemetery above the graves of the plague victims. Today the play, seen by more than half a million visitors from around the world, takes place at a theatre built as an open-air venue in 1830. The stage was enlarged in 1890 and then renovated in 1990 so that it can accommodate more than 4,720 people.

Oberammergau sits in the valley of the River Ammer, among lush meadows and gentle foothills of the Ammergau Alps. It’s a beautiful village, a fairy-tale place with its wooden balconies decorated with brilliant red geraniums. In many ways it’s a typical Bavarian community but it’s just one hour away from the lively city of Munich.

In its  41st season, the play will have more than 100 performances next year from May 15 to Oct. 3, with shows every day except Monday and Wednesday. The presentation is lengthy —  lasting from 2:30 p.m. until 10:30 p.m., including a three-hour dinner break. The spectacle is rich in music, costumes and scenery.

As well as a visual spectacle, the play is a musical feast. The score was composed in the early 1800s by Rochus Dedler, a highly regarded composer of sacred music. Although there have been several adaptations, the score is still based on Dedler’s work. Vocal parts, such as a back-of-the-stage solo tenor and choir, which is heard as the Voice of God in the tableau of the Burning Bush, add to the drama. Present musical director Markus Zwink maintains the grandeur of Dedler’s music with 110 choristers and 56 musicians.

The production is entirely in the hands of the residents of Oberammergau. Only those born there or who have lived there for at least 20 years can participate. Most have been involved for decades, although their roles may change. About half of the 5,200 inhabitants are involved in some way, if not on stage, then as seamstresses, stagehands or ticket takers.  In the past, there were several restrictions as to who could play what roles. For instance, until 1990 only unmarried women under the age of 35 could have a stage role.

A year before the performance, the village’s aspiring actors gather outside the theatre to watch the call board as choices for the lead roles are revealed. There are 21 double-cast principal roles and 120 additional speaking parts, plus as many as 1,000 participants in crowd scenes (800 adults, 200 children and 50 animals). On Ash Wednesday the year before the play, the men and women grow their hair and the men beards as well. No wigs or false beards are allowed. Rehearsals last five months. Because Jesus came from a patriarchal society, the roles for women are limited, although the 2010 production has two new female roles — Pontius Pilate’s wife and the woman stoned for adultery. 

Tourists and pilgrims flock to Oberammergau from around the world, many of them arriving with tours such as one being led out of Toronto by Salt + Light TV CEO Fr. Tom Rosica. Visitors are both pilgrims and tourists. Pilgrims in the sense they are coming with faith to witness a compelling re-creation of  “the greatest story every told.” Tourists in that they have an opportunity to partake in the many attractions within the village itself — the Bavarian cuisine, visitors’ centre,  museum with its magnificent collection of Nativity cribs and woodcarvings for which the village craftspeople are famous, and the Ecumenical building that features lectures and devotional services by chaplains appointed for the play period.

Only a few kilometres away, providing endless hours of delight and inspiration are the Gothic-Baroque Benedictine monastery of Ettel and King Ludwig II’s favourite palace — Linderhof,  a smaller version of the palace and gardens of Versailles.

(Williams is a Contributing Editor to The Catholic Register.)

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